Sunday, March 18, 2012

Exhausting Situation

Our quickest road to Awakening is to begin seeing all obstacles as Teachers. --Pema Chodron

A friend posted that quote on Facebook this morning. I had scanned it quickly and it registered in my brain as "Our quickest road to Awakening is to see all obstacles as Teachers. " My first reaction was just a sigh and surrender to the role we teachers have as whipping boys for all that ails our schools.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are some legitimate reasons to come to that conclusion.

The post was made by a teacher that usually has something real to say about a perspective and I did take the additional ten seconds to re-read the quote a couple more times.  My take now is that it is the truth about how to navigate this life with intelligence, integrity and grace.  Problems that come our way are just our chances, OK, our tests, to be real and honest and to not hide motivations and solutions behind selfish delusions.

Wouldn't you know, that those words would come to me just as I am dealing with a most difficult situation here in Tuntutuliak.

Last Thursday was a  challenging day in the class, but I knew that the solution involved  do-able actions on my part. A couple of kids were taking normal, but obnoxious jr hi goofiness to another level.  Surliness had crossed the line from pouting and mean looks to knocking things off of desks while  shouting some very bad Yup'ik words at me. 


I pulled out my check sheet and soon both of these students earned an after-school detention. A teacher can't show anger.  If you lose it, they know they can get to you and it's all over.

I smiled and blinked my eyes as I told them they would be staying after school.  After they offered up a few more choice words, both sat and put heads on hands.  The boy pulled his coat over his head.  This was good. Cool off a bit.  They chilled and I left them alone.

Luckily, the other students had a different reaction as things became unpleasant with these two. 

One girl that usually always does her work, but does so while being loud and silly, is now quiet and gets to subtracting unlike fractions with borrowing with focused determination.  She does like to prove she can figure things out and once again, proves she can. I am so pleasantly surprised and impressed that she didn't join the fray as I would have predicted that she would.

A boy who is becoming a man and who has never caused the smallest problem aside from not getting all of his assignments in, comes sits by me and works though every confusion he has and get done with his math early. School doesn't have much meaning to him, but he is polite and nice and goes through the motions.  Everyday he tells me about his after school hunts.  He is humble and shares accounts of his unsuccessful hunts with matter-of-fact acceptance that one is not always lucky. Big smiles accompany the stories of each hare or ptarmigan now destined to be a meal.

The boy who lived a homeless year in Anchorage and has the attention span of a kid, well, who comes from such dysfunctionality gets every problem done.  Does it really matter that he got everyone wrong?

The girl who had the breakdown is one of my most favorite students ever.  Oh, she is difficult and her impulsive nature will bring her a lot of unnecessary grief.  She is also my best math student this year.  I can explain things to her once or twice and she gets it.  She's a good enough reader and loves to do so out loud in class. She will pick up a book for recreation. She gets the bigger point of a story.  No kidding, she even stays after school to clean my dry erase board. What more can a teacher want?

Not long after her meltdown and on her own, she goes and works with the kid who got  all the answers wrong,  In twenty minutes he has them all right.

I retired after twenty five years of full-time teaching because I could sense that whatever reserve of patience with students that I had remaining was near and end.  Now, as a temporary teacher for hire, I am a mercenary and bring a cold-blooded attitude to the cold-hardened places of bush Alaska.  I don't own a problem any more than I have to and that attitude lets me have some acceptance of living away from my other life.  That acceptance gets mistaken for patience.

I love my other life.  These stints in the village provide the time and finances to enable that other wild and precious time.

Well, all that you have read so far is just the setup for the obstacle that has now become my current teacher. 

So, I assigned detention to the two students who misbehaved. Both are capable of expressing their anger and frustrations with some degree of destructiveness.  Before reporting for detention, the two announce that they are not going to go and mill about with other students  now dismissed at the end of the day.  My house is at the base of the stairs of the main door.  My porch is an after school and evening hangout.

They eventually do go to detention and do their time.  When they are released, they come out and turn in their verification slips with insolence and go home with a bad attitude. I finish up my day entering grades and such and then make my 15-second commute home.  When I open my door, there's a fog of diesel exhaust in the arctic entry.  When i open the door to my living/dining room-kitchen, I'm engulfed in serious fumes.  I turn off the Toyon room heater that is spewing exhaust in the house and open the one functional window I have. 
The vent is on the right side of my house

The now sawed off vent pipe

I then went outside and the cause of the problem was immediately evident.  Someone had bent the exhaust pipe 90+ degrees and pinched the vent completely off.  Phillip, one of the school custodians was in the utility shed.  He was apologetically disappointed upon hearing my news.  He found a screwdriver and after I had bent the pipe back to it’s former position, I used the tool to pry open enough of the still crimped end to let the heater vent properly. Mark, the head custodian, came over with a saws-all and cut off the damaged extrusion.

I waited outside my door, now opened to the single-digit outdoor temps to air out the poisonous gas. An itinerant teacher visiting Tunt who had planned to join me for an after-work walk on the Kinak River waited with me. Her supportive presence helped keep the incident in perspective.

A week before, I had come to be at peace with agreeing to stay on here until the end of the school year.  Despite the Siren call of my other life and the snowfall to have made life back home a ski-bum’s paradise, I’ve accepted a tradeoff born of delayed gratification.  By finishing the term in Tuntutuliak, the LKSD granted my request to return home for a two-week taste of my other life. For the eight months following the end of this latest contract extension, I have an escape to Mexico booked, summer fun in Alaska awaiting and a travel adventure that includes a week in NYC, six weeks in Africa and a month in Turkey. 

Gratification that is worth a delay and the sacrifice of a ski-bum winter.

This exhausting incident has brought a cold callousness to the already cold bleakness of life here.  If it had happened at night, I might have woken up dead.  During the hour I let my house air, I thought that my likely solution was to the leave the village and to leave soon. 

Yeah, what doesn't kill you makes you stranger.

I locked up my house and Judith, the traveling speech pathologist, and I began our river walk.  We saw a fox scurry across the icy snow.  I then felt another presence and looked around.  Two kids were running to join us and they hung with us as we followed some snowgo tracks onto the tundra to the northwest.  We took every left-bearing snowgo track and gradually made our counter-clockwise way back to the river. We returned to my house an hour and half after we started.

The house still smelled like diesel, but the fumes were no longer overwhelming.  I kept the window open and began to make dinner. 

I couldn't jump to any conclusions.  I wasn't sure if the pipe had been bent shut out of maliciousness or if it was just some random act of typical village vandalism with no thought to consequence.

I reserved judgment until the morning; I wanted a chance to talk to my students.  Were the two detention recipients somehow connected to the vandalism?  If so, dealing with malicious intent could ripple out to reactions that went beyond prediction. 

Worse, there would be sense of betrayal that i just didn't want to deal with.  I could not envision staying on.

All of my students reacted to the news with a sense of concern for me.  Not only were none of them involved, but they quickly fingered the culprit.  It was the son of one of the village VPSOs, village public safety officers, the deputized keepers of law and order.  My students were happy to turn him in.  He was a bully and did mean things to other kids. 

He was also one of the kids who had just joined me for the post-incident walk.

I’ve never had a negative interaction with him, so there was no maliciousness that was instigated by anger towards me.  I can’t begin to explain his motivation however. He’s old enough to know what the outcome of his action could have been.

Before we solved the whodunit, I had emailed the LKSD HR director and my principal, who was in Anchorage at a meeting.  The director duly noted the severity of the problem and offered his support in dealing with the matter.

The acting principal called the kid’s mother.  The mother proceeded to cuss out that teacher and blame the school for her kid’s actions. How nice.

It so happens that there was a basketball tourney in Bethel for elementary school kids this weekend.  The culprit was on the team and now not allowed to go along.  After school, I tied to ask the kid what his motivation was and he just walked away. He couldn’t/wouldn’t even look at me.

Friday afternoon was also Parent-Teacher conferences.  We dismissed after lunch.  During the morning session, all my students were stunningly well-behaved and each one completed all of their school work without the slightest resistance.  Several asked with genuine concern if the exhaust might have killed me.  Two reported that the exact same thing had happened at their houses.

Is it inevitable that someone will die as the result of a prank?

Before parents started showing up for conferences, one of the Yup’ik staff came to me and apologized as community member.  She was embarrassed that it had happened.  Most all of my parents showed up to chat about their kid.  Everyone was happy that I was there. Apparently, all of the kids are complaining that I give too much class work.  That’s what they need was the parents' consensus.  One was glad that they brought me in rather than a guss’ik.  He realized what he had said and then clarified that I wasn’t a guss’ik that had no idea about how to live in a village.

For now, I am once again OK with my decision to remain in Tuntutuliak

Sunday, February 19, 2012

3) Winter Rivers

Alaskan Rivers are fascinating in the winter. Not all freeze, and those that do, do so quite differently. Back home, my house is about 200 yards from the Kenai River as it approaches Soldotna.  The lower stretch freezes more often than not, although it is rare for the section above Skilak Lake to solidify.  Several years ago, a winter ice damn broke in the mountains when it was 20 below 0 F.  The massive release of water froze into a river of ice that didn't quite move at a glacial pace.  It slowly, but visibly, tore through the lower Kenai toward Soldotna and scoured the banks. Metal walks were twisted and ripped out of pilings.  Boat docks and shore-side outbuildings splintered and were carried down in the jumbled ice. There was talk of setting off explosives down by Slikok Creek to break up an ice jam that clogged the ice upstream.

In the lower Kuskokwim Delta, I've lived along the Johnson River in Kasigluk Akiuk and Nunapitchuk.  It was my first experience water-skipping a snowgo.  The packed snow down the mid-channel trail would gradualy become submerged in overflow and melt water.  Locals would take ice augers and drill holes in the remnants of the dry surface and eventually the still solid mass of ice below the wet would float to the surface.  To access the now-floating trail, one had to skim a snowmachine across open channels. There was a short period when you could see boats and snowgos on the river.  As skiffs needed to cross the ever thinning ice trail, the pilot would gun the boat's kicker and slide the bow up on the ice while simultaneously pulling up the prop. The boat driver, and any passengers aboard, would then jump out and slide the skiff across the strip of ice, jump back in and take off.  All the while, snowgos would water skip to the ice and speed away on the floating trail.

Tree years ago, the Kasigluk Senior Prom was held on the Akula side of the Johnson. Students and teachers from Akiuk, dressed in their village finest under snowsuits, hopped in wooden freight sleds behind snowgos and skipping across to the ice trail on one of the last days that it possible to do so.

The Kuskowim River becomes a highway in the winter. A strip gets plowed every now and again and tractors, trucks, cars, snowgos, walkers and the occasional skier travel between villages.  A reality-show film crew, pushing the breakup window, nearly got stranded in Napaskiak last year as their rented 2wheel drive sedan almost couldn't make it up and down the slushy bank.

Here in Tuntutuliak, the Kinak River, a tributary of the Kusko  is some 25 miles from the bay.  The elevation of the tundra here might be 6-8 feet above sea level and like the rest of the delta, there is scant dryish land.  Bering Sea tides reach far upriver and change the characteristics of the Kinak throughout a winter's day.

In January and early February when most of Alaska was gripped by a severely frigid air mass, the incoming tide created jagged pressure ridges parallel to the bank. It was a plate tectonic visual as shelves of ice shimmied some four to six feet  high above the shore ice.  Overflow seeping up through cracks instantly froze in brownish rounded mounds.  In the main river channel, perpendicular cracks, formed like escalator steps to allow for the rise and fall of the subsurface fluid tide. On walks, I could feel the vibrations of the expanding and contracting frozen fault lines and the sound of river flowm stiff now in the cold would be replaced by the creeks, groans and retorts of ice grinding on ice.

Now that more reasonable winter temperatures have returned, the seeping overflow no longer freezes instantly. Depending on the ambient air temperature, the fresh liquid either puddles in small ponds along the river bank, forms thin sheets of ice over the flow, or sometimes crystallizes in thousands of tiny gossamer wings.  I walk or ski the river most everyday and there has yet to be conditions alike one day to the next.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

2) Tundra Ski

For my first month in Tututuliak, it was so bitter cold (-30s F) and windy, that I didn't ski at all.  I did manage a daily trudge up and down the Kinak River and sometimes through the village. Getting ready to go outside was an ordeal, requiring a full snow suit, two face masks, ski goggles, hat, hood, insulated boots and serious mittens.  Despite the preparation, the wind was still able to find its way through the tiniest openings in my clothing.  Everyone here has some frost-bitten flesh on their face. The locals call them Eskimo hickeys.  

The weather broke and warmed to just below freezing about ten days ago and I've skate skied every day since.  For a class assignment, I had my students draw maps of the community and from that information, was able to find the snowgo trail to Bethel.  I have no delusions about skiing the 50+ miles to get there, but the trail is varied and packed down by the snowmachine traffic, however sparse that .  It makes a good out and back workout.  The fact of skiing on the tundra is that there is always wind.  It's going to hammer you either coming or going

I did ski a bit this weekend, maybe 6 miles on Friday, 4 on Saturday, and then 10 on Sunday.  The winds were too much Saturday and I went out right into the brunt of it.  The turn around was great though.  I skied like I was Kikki Randal on my return - just as fast as one can possibly go with boards strapped on your feet!  

Sunday's ski was like no other.  The light was flat and there was absolutely no definition in the snow.  I could discern the trail about a foot beyond my ski tips, but no further. The white gray of the trail became the gray white of the sky, especially as I crossed the flatness of the lakes and sloughs where there was no vegetation to provide any depth to vision.  It was like skiing into nothingness and mostly exciting for the mystery. 

Maybe that's a metaphor for where my life is at.

I almost didn't ski after work today as I had to shop and do laundry and had a small window of opportunity open for that.  Skiing couldn't be denied however and I'm glad I convinced myself to head out for a bit.  I was able to get a significant ski on the river for the first time since the bitter cold left.  There's been too much wet overflow along the banks as the tides rises and seeps though the cracks and pressure ridges. Today there was at least an icy approach to the main channel.  I went up river about 4 miles before turning around.  It had been foggy all day and as the sun set, the low mist thickened into the darkness.  No worries however, as it's impossible to get lost on the river.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

1) Working For A Living

The door to my classroom after a snowy windstorm
At the moment, I live in Tuntutuliak, a Yup'ik village in western Alaska some 450 miles from the closest road that actually connects to the rest of the world. I'm an interim teacher filling in for someone who became too ill to work any more.  There are rumors of a newly minted teacher willing to come out soon and take over my class of seven 7th graders. I'm booked to fly back to the Alaska of trees, traffic, commerce and friends in three weeks.  I may not have to change that reservation.

As a semi-retired teacher, long-term substituting provides the time and funds necessary to maintain a certain lifestyle . I've remodeled my house, traveled on five continents, and have what toys that I need to enjoy the skiing, kayaking, biking and other outdoor activities abundant in Alaska. This is my second assignment this school year.  With the proceeds,  I hope to get to Africa and then maybe to India, Bhutan and Burma.  We shall see.

For better or worse, I am starting to daydream about my post-village life.  When I return to the Kenai Peninsula, I hope to have a good month or two of being a ski bum.  I'm thinking about being able to have a glass of wine for dinner, an option not allowed in this dry village. I want to enjoy mornings of unrushed coffee and unlimited laughter with friends.

But I'm here now and that's good too.

You can't stumble upon Tuntutuliak, Kasigluk Akiuk, Goodnews Bay or some of the other villages where I have worked. There has to be some sort of intention and purpose. There are no roads, no cars, no restaurants, no theaters. Nothing.  It's tundra here; spin around and for all 360 degrees, there is no vertical to mar the horizontal. Surprisingly, at some 20 miles from a bay of the Bering Sea, tidal changes are very evident in Tunt. Before we escaped from the most bitterly cold stretch of winter that the area has had in decades, the hydraulics of the incoming water constantly changed the Kinak River.  Twice a day, as the ice would rise and then fall again, perpendicular cracks would hinge the surface and allow for expansion and contraction.  The banks provide a visual representation of plate tectonics in action with pressure ridges jutting as razorback teeth some 2 meters high.

Now that normal winter temps have returned, the overflow seeping up from cracks no longer freezes instantly.  Channels of overflow make it difficult for those on foot or skis to access the ice trail in the middle of the river.  The perimeter ice forms as crystallized gossamer wings. The river takes on different characteristics hourly.  The locals don't have running water and everyday you see fathers and sons chopping ice into sleds or skimming the overflow into buckets for use at home.

As soon as I post this, I'll put on my skate skis and travel the snowgo trail towards Bethel.  Maybe I'll make it out five miles before I turn around.  It's rare that the wind isn't the deciding factor determining time and distance out on the tundra.  I'm hoping to fight the wind early, making my return, well, a breeze.